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Saturday, May 27, 2006

I'll Take My Avocado Medium Rare'



Coming to the grill this summer: peanuts, mangos and raisins, if marketers get their way

By KATY MCLAUGHLIN

This memorial day, Joe Schoendorf, a venture capitalist based in Palo Alto, Calif., plans to feed a party of 12 with risotto grilled over applewood. To do it, he'll use a pan, just as he would on his stove. He'd also like to grill the family's recipe for almond cake, but his wife and daughter have nixed that plan.

As people across America usher in grilling season this weekend, some unlikely foods are battling for a place on your barbecue. Promoters of everything from avocados and sauerkraut to raisins and peanuts are trying to persuade backyard chefs that their stuff will taste great seared in the open air. They're paying chefs to promote their products as grill-worthy, sending recipes to local newspapers and staging demos at supermarkets.

It's all a challenge for backyard pit masters. Mangos are so easy to burn they can go from caramelized treat to carbonized mess in minutes. Try grilling an overly ripe avocado and you'll have green goop dripping through the grate. And there's the question of whether your guests really want sauerkraut in their barbecue.

In barbecue-obsessed America, where 7% of all home-cooked dinners are now at least in part prepared over the coals, according to market-research firm NPD Group, foods that are seen as good for grilling can rack up extra sales. But it's a bit harder right now for off-the-wall foods to make it onto the fire because prices for grilling staples are likely to be particularly attractive this summer. Beef wholesale prices are down about 8% from a year ago, according to industry-research service Cattle-Fax. Pork and chicken are cheaper too.

Which explains why a 40-foot-long trailer outfitted to look like a giant peanut and supplied with recipes for peanuts as a condiment for grilled foods, is parked at the Georgia Agrirama, an agricultural museum in Tifton, Ga. And this summer Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., San Diego and San Antonio will serve dishes like grilled salmon with peanut sauce from recipes from the peanut board. It's part of a $500,000 National Peanut Board campaign. Linking peanuts to grilling, says Mitch Head, a public-relations consultant for the board, is a way to counter the idea that they're good only as a snack at a baseball game or a sandwich spread.

For marketers like the peanut board, the hope is that foods seen as too exotic or ethnic (mangos and avocados), highfalutin' (duck and veal) or one-dimensional (pears and peanuts) will become all-American, down-home and versatile the minute they begin to sizzle over the briquettes.

The aim, of course, is to nab a sales spike in grilling season. In an analysis of 2005 retail sales, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which promotes beef consumption, found that volume sales were highest during the weeks before Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day. Grilling "is really what moves our business" in the summer, says Gregg Doud, chief economist for the NCBA.

To win a piece of that business for pears and peanuts means persuading grill jockeys to continue pushing the envelope. Steven Raichlen's "The Barbecue! Bible," first published in 1998, includes recipes for everything from Catalan tomato bread to grilled bananas, and celebrity griller Bobby Flay has been flaming quail, nectarines and the like on the Food Network show Boy Meets Grill for three years.

In a sign of just how competitive the grilling scene is, some food marketers are hoping to persuade editors at local newspapers to run ready-to-print articles about the popularity of grilling their products. Much like the video news releases shown on local television stations, the stories are not paid advertising and their origins may or may not be identified.

One such article quotes chef Melissa Kelly as saying, "Incorporating exotic fruits such as mangos into savory dishes using a lean meat like pork is hotter than ever." The article was paid for by the National Mango Board and the National Pork Board. Ms. Kelly, who co-owns three Primo restaurants in Rockland, Maine, Orlando and Tucson, Ariz., is a paid consultant to the pork board, the board says. (Ms. Kelly didn't respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.)

The boards, which are funded by mandatory assessments on sales, paid public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard to prepare the article and Family Features Editorial Syndicate, in Mission, Kan., to distribute it free to midcirculation newspapers, magazines and Web sites.

Both companies say that, even though the material is paid for, it still provides useful information to consumers. "We create pieces that an editorial department would create," says Fleishman-Hillard vice president Kim Bedwell. "The recipes are tested and fit into today's trends." Family Features president Dena Strum Klein says her company requests that it and the sources that compiled the material, such as the commodity boards, be cited, although that is optional.

This summer, Family Features is also syndicating an article about cooking and grilling with raisins, paid for in part by the California Raisin Marketing Board; one about grilling with sauerkraut and Emmentaler cheese, courtesy of the German Agricultural Marketing Board; and another about grilling sandwiches, with recipes by celebrity chef Todd English, who was paid by the Grain Foods Foundation.

The goal of these efforts is clearly commercial, but grilling most foods does have culinary merit, says David Kamen, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who teaches smoking and grilling. In addition to infusing food with smoky flavor, he says, "it's caramelizing sugars, it's browning proteins, it's rendering out fat, which makes for crispy exteriors." The only foods that don't work on the grill are lean, delicate items like flounder, sole and ripe tomatoes, Mr. Kamen says, because they tend to dry out or fall apart.

For avocado marketers, the Web site www.avocado.org/bbb1 -- complete with a Guac-a-Burger videogame -- is part of an attempt to boost consumption in the face of record supply. There will be nearly a billion pounds of avocados on the market this year, up from 800 million last year, according to the California Avocado Commission, thanks to heavy rains in Southern California and import regulations that allow more fruit to enter from Mexico.

For the mango board, grilling addresses another issue: The board's executive director, William Watson, says the group decided to promote grilling with the fruit after a study determined that, while Asians and Hispanics know about mangos, many other Americans don't. Grilling, he says, is a way to put an all-American spin on mangos.

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